On the fourth Thursday in August, my neighbors and I cordon off the ends of our block and take over the street for an evening. The annual Augustus Ave. block party is an exercise in teamwork and deep democracy.
Joe gets the word out a few weeks in advance by dropping flyers at every door down the street. Frances, Mark, Nina, and Ron bring out tables and chairs. Beth makes her pasta salad and gets bubble wands and sidewalk chalk ready for the kids. Robin hosts the inflatable bouncy house in her front yard. Dorothy and Dennis lead the clean-up crew. Glenn is in charge of music. And the wider neighborhood joins us for burgers and arepas, conversation and community.
There’s magic in seeing slightly familiar faces become new neighborhood friends over ice cream and cold drinks. Social scientists would describe this as building social cohesion, or strengthening the human ties that are important for personal and public health.
We’re happier when we know our neighbors, and safer too. During natural disasters or emergencies, the most resilient communities — places that suffer the fewest casualties and rebuild more quickly — are not the wealthiest neighborhoods or ones that have spent the most on physical infrastructure, but rather the communities with the strongest social infrastructure.
When people know and care about their neighbors, they show up for each other in tough times and work together more effectively to boost quality of life in all the times in between. These community ties are also an important foundation for civic engagement and action at a moment when much is at stake.
As individuals we can feel powerless at the scale of the political crisis unfolding daily, with government refusing to confront any of the disasters looming before us: climate crisis, opioid crisis, housing crisis, constitutional crisis, structural racism, deepening income inequality, crushing congestion.
But our divided politics isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom of the underlying societal ailment that each one of us has a role in treating: a crisis of trust.
Americans are increasingly alone. We have fewer confidantes and social connections. Our communications habits reinforce silos and isolation. More time scrolling through endless e-mails, emojis, and memes leaves less time face-to-face with family and community.
The breakdown is happening street by street. Forty years ago, 1 out of 3 Americans spent time with their neighbors at least twice a week. Today 4 out of 5 people don’t see their neighbors regularly, and one-third don’t interact with any neighbors at all. When we don’t know the names of the people living in the same building or down the street, we mark the loss of an important support network.
Eroding relationships and trust at a personal level add up to policy paralysis at a societal level. We need bold changes to match the urgency of our challenges but can’t marshal the political will to choose a course of action without consensus. It’s natural to oppose potential changes if you don’t trust that your community will actually benefit, or if you don’t see yourself as part of the larger community.
Want to fix our broken democracy? Organize a block party. Create the rare forum to connect not based on similar political affiliations or policy views, but simply because of a shared stake in the same place. Celebrate your neighbors and find ways to keep those ties strong year-round.
Since last summer’s block party, my neighbor Frances has taken on setting up a neighborhood association with regular meetings to bring us together through the fall, winter, and spring. We have a forum to share concerns, weigh in on local issues, and keep strengthening our social infrastructure. And we’re planning an even bigger block party for this August.
Full civic engagement requires more than individuals committing to vote. Charting a brighter shared future requires each of us to cherish our stake in the wider community and know the joy of being part of a strong civic fabric.
This summer, get to know your neighbors and plan a block party together. Our democracy depends on it.
Michelle Wu is an at-large Boston city councilor.